Tuesday, June 17, 2014

John Altoon, little-known giant

John Altoon in his studio, ca. 1968
Image Courtesy of the Getty and Joe Goode

The work of John Altoon is anything but innocuous- and yet, its playfulness can lead you to think otherwise. His paintings and works on paper burst with color; his ink drawings sizzle. Looking at Altoon's work is a bit like walking through a fun house: some images are abstract and distorted; others are crystal clear. It's a successful retrospective that makes you wonder "What's next?" each time you shift left or right. There's candy on every wall.

Ocean Park Series, 1962. Oil on canvas. 72 x 84 in.
Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA

Untitled (F-8), 1962-63
Image Courtesy of the Estate of John Altoon and The Box. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen

John Altoon, an exhibition organized by LACMA and the Rose Art Museum (Brandeis University), is the artist's first major retrospective. Altoon died young, at age 43, and his brief career has made him easy to overlook. But he is important. The vinyl quotations on LACMA's gallery walls, with quotes from big names like Ed Ruscha and Billy Al Bengston, are testament to his impact. Many referenced his uncanny ability to fluidly traverse figuration and abstraction; one friend called him the fastest draftsman you will ever meet. Indeed his quick, impassioned lines are electrifying; they enliven every room. I spent one minute following the curls and intersections of a single eye.

Another signature are his phalli, which range from conspicuous to not; some materialize only after a few moments of looking. F-24 (the F refers to "figurative") is a blend of Pop Art and personal touch: a soda can pours out a stream of sludge, the color of body fluid, catching a phallus in its wake. It is playful, grotesque, and strangely erotic-- an effect that, combined with his distinctive use of line, are quintessentially Altoon.

Untitled (F-24), 1962-63
Image Courtesy of the Estate of John Altoon and The Box. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen

John Altoon is on view at LACMA through September 14, 2014.

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